For the last four weeks, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have been engaged in massive protests along the Israeli border. Israel has responded with force, killing at least 40 Palestinians (including two journalists) and wounding thousands. B’Tselem, a Jerusalem-based nonprofit documenting Israeli human rights violations, recently called on IDF soldiers to refuse orders to shoot demonstrators. On episode 6 of Deconstructed, B’Tselem’s executive director, Hagai El Ad, joins Mehdi Hasan to discuss the border violence and the broader situation in Palestine. And Avner Gvaryahu, former Israeli paratrooper and executive director of Breaking the Silence, a group which documents the stories of IDF soldiers about their activities in the occupied territories, talks about his own time as a soldier in the West Bank.
Avner Gvaryahu: Israelis do not know what’s happening on the ground. Israelis don’t understand the situation in Gaza today. Israelis don’t understand what it’s like to live as a Palestinian. And they only remember there are Palestinians when there’s violence.
Mehdi Hasan: I’m Mehdi Hasan. Welcome to Deconstructed. Tahrir Mahmoud Wahba was 18. Ala’ Yahya az-Zamily was 17. Husein Mohamed Madhi was 16. Mohammed Ibrahim Ayoub was 15. They were all unarmed, and all killed over the past few weeks by Israeli snipers, using live ammunition at the Israel-Gaza border. Every week, Palestinians continue to gather there as part of their ongoing “Great March of Return” protests. And every week, Israeli soldiers continue to shoot, murder and maim them in their hundreds and thousands.
Today on Deconstructed I’ll speak to two brave Israeli activists who campaigned to protect the human rights of Palestinians, and for an end to what has become the longest military occupation of the modern era.
Hagai El-Ad: These commands are flagrantly illegal. This is not complicated. You don’t need to be an IHL expert to look at this reality and immediately recognize that shooting live ammunition at unarmed demonstrators is absolutely unacceptable.
MH: This week, the killing fields of Gaza.
News Anchor: Four Palestinians, including a 15-year-old boy were killed by Israeli gunfire on Friday.
News Anchor: At least 39 Palestinians have been killed in the four weeks of demonstrations against the Israeli blockade.
News Anchor: U.N. says there’s a strong indication that the Israeli army has used excessive force.
MH: So let’s be clear about what’s going on in Gaza: Almost two million people, including 1.3 million refugees, crammed into a 140-mile strip. They’re being shot at and killed on a weekly basis, while protesting. And remember: they’re not trying to invade and occupy Israel, they’re trying to free themselves from Israel’s invasion and occupation of Gaza.
The Gaza Strip is occupied territory. It’s not contested; it’s not disputed. It’s occupied — militarily, illegally, in defiance of international law. And don’t take my word for it. Here’s the spokesman for the U.N. Secretary-General, speaking seven years after the Israelis did their so-called disengagement, their pull-out from Gaza in 2005.
Spokesperson: The Gaza Strip continues to be regarded as part of the occupied Palestinian territory.
MH: In fact, don’t just take the U.N.’s word for it either. Just use your own common sense. The Israelis say they pulled out of Gaza in 2005, pulled out all their troops, all their illegal settlers — therefore, ergo, Gaza isn’t occupied anymore. Which sounds reasonable, except for the fact that Israel, with the help of Egypt, today controls Gaza’s borders, Gaza’s airspace, Gaza’s territorial waters and Gaza’s population registry. Yeah! The population registry. Israel literally decides who does and does not get counted as a resident of Gaza. That’s occupation.
In fact, the Israelis decide who can go in and out of the Gaza Strip and what can go in and out of the Gaza Strip. At one stage, they bombed that well-known bomb-making ingredient cilantro. Yeah, cilantro. Why cilantro? They banned cilantro from going into the Strip, which is why even pro-Israeli, Western leaders such as the former Conservative prime minister of Great Britain, David Cameron, have said:
Prime Minister David Cameron: Gaza cannot and must not be allowed to remain a prison camp.
MH: But it is a prison camp, an open-air prison camp, in which the prison guards have carte blanche to kill whoever they like, whenever they like, wherever they like, because all the people there, the people who live there, form there, study there, play there, protest there are Hamas. They’re all terrorists. That’s what we’re told.
Keren Hajioff: What we’ve seen is a violent riot in its clearest form.
Jonathan Conricus: The purpose of this riot as per what Hamas is saying, they want to erase the border, they want to penetrate into Israel.
David Keyes: Hamas engineered an event where they wanted thousands of people to swarm into Israel, to overrun Israel, to commit acts of terror.
MH: It’s easy to kill unarmed protesters If you demonize them first. Right? If they’re all terrorists. If they’re all Hamas. Take, for example, the claim from Eli Hazan, foreign affairs spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, who said, and I quote, “all 30,000″ — all 30,000 Gaza protestors — “all 30,000 are legitimate targets.” Or Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s claim that, “There are no innocent people in Gaza” — 1.9 million people live in Gaza, but according to the defense minister of Israel, none of them are innocent, apparently.
That is the language of genocide. It is. In fact, the Israeli response to people pointing out that they’re killing nonviolent Palestinians in Gaza, hundreds of feet away from their beloved fence, their response is so extreme, so amoral, so tone-deaf that even some of their most loyal supporters are no longer buying it.
One of the big stories right now was the recent decision by the Israeli-American actress Natalie Portman, Queen Amidala herself, to turn down Israel’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize because she says she doesn’t want to look like she’s endorsing Benjamin Netanyahu and his government.
News Anchor: Her representative told the Genesis prize that recent events in Israel have been extremely distressing to her, and she does not feel comfortable participating in any public events in Israel.
MH: Israeli nationalists have lost their minds over Portman’s snub. One member of the Knesset, of Israel’s parliament, said she should be stripped of her citizenship. A member of Netanyahu’s cabinet said she was guilty of — wait for it, wait for it — she was guilty of anti-Semitism.
Meanwhile, in the killing fields of Gaza, the Palestinian bodies continue to pile up, young and old alike. And the world just doesn’t seem to care.
But you know what? These deaths have to matter to us. If you’re American they have to especially matter to you, because your government gives around $3 billion of military aid to Israel every single year.
The United States is far and away the biggest supplier of arms and military equipment to the Jewish state. So those Israeli snipers shooting protesters in the head, shooting kids in the head, shooting journalists, wearing press jackets, they were bought and paid for by Uncle Sam.
Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but as taxpayers in the U.S., we all have Palestinian blood on our hands, whether we like it or not — whether we know it or not.
Demonstrator: They are not care about dying, because they are dying slowly, day by day in Gaza. So I talk with many of those demonstrators. They said that, “We are ready to die now.”
MH: Now the Israelis say this is all fake news. These are all lies and smears, they’re all made up by the Palestinians who are anti-Semitic, by the Arab countries who are anti-Semitic, by European governments who are anti-Semitic, by the left which is deeply anti-Semitic.
The problem with this Israeli propaganda — and that’s what this is, it’s propaganda — is that it isn’t just Palestinian human rights groups, or Western human rights groups, such as Amnesty or Human Rights Watch, who have exposed Israeli abuses and war crimes in the occupied territories, but it’s Israeli human rights groups, too. Organizations like Breaking the Silence, an Israeli NGO which offers former Israeli soldiers the opportunity to confidentially break their silence over what they did in the occupied territories.
And, of course, the legendary B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights, which has been documenting abuses against the occupied Palestinian people for nearly 30 years now.
Forget, for a moment, what Palestinians are saying about Israeli human rights abuses. Just listen to what Israelis are saying about Israeli human rights abuses.
MH: My guests today are two personal heroes of mine, because they put up with abuse, hate, death threats from their fellow Israelis, on a near daily basis, in order to stand up for human rights — specifically for the human rights of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.
Avner Gvaryahu is a former Israeli paratrooper who served in the occupied West Bank as a sniper team sergeant, but who now is executive director of Breaking the Silence.
Hagai El-Ad is a veteran human rights activist, former gay rights activist, former head of Israel’s version of the ACLU, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and since 2014, executive director of B’Tselem. Recently he and his organization provoked uproar in Israel when they called on Israeli soldiers at the Gaza border to refuse illegal orders to shoot to kill.
MH: Avner Gvaryahu and Hagai El-Ad, thank you both for joining me on Deconstructed.
Hagai, can I start with you? You’re the executive director of B’Tselem. Tell our listeners what B’Tselem is, what it does, why it exists.
Hagai El-Ad: B’Tselem means, in Hebrew, in the image, comes from the Bible. The idea is to express something that is fundamentally universal and Jewish at the same time. That all human beings were created in the image of God. We are the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in occupied territories. We’ve been around for almost 30 years now, documenting facts on the ground, analyzing their meaning and advocating for an end for the occupation.
MH: And Avner, you are also in the human rights field, but Breaking the Silence is a very different type of organization when it comes to documenting human rights abuses. You publish the anonymous testimonies of former Israeli soldiers who served in the Occupied Territories. What has the response to that been like? You’re a former soldier yourself. What’s the response been to your testimony and the testimonies of others who’ve come to Breaking the Silence?
Avner Gvaryahu: Yes, so we’re definitely not a classic human rights organization in that sense. We’ve been around for 13 years, over 1000 soldiers, 1,100 soldiers who have met with us and shared their experiences, but not only in an attempt to share, but also to change.
I think that most people will disagree with our analysis of what we did and what we saw, but it’s very difficult to disagree and to disregard what so many soldiers are talking about. The day-to-day routine of the occupation, barging into homes, arrests, checkpoints — I mean that’s really the bread and butter, that’s the core of breaking the silence.
MH: We can’t really not talk about Gaza first. What’s going on in Gaza, what’s been going on in Gaza in recent weeks, the violence at the border, with Israeli soldiers shooting unarmed protesters. We’ve seen videos of people fleeing the border, being shot in the back, literally. The Israelis say: This is us defending our border from infiltrators, from people trying to get through with burning tires and Molotov cocktails.
Hagai, how do you respond to that as someone who’s right in the heart of this debate inside of Israel?
HE: These commands are flagrantly illegal. They should not have been given and they should not be followed. This is not complicated. You don’t need to be an IHL expert to look at this reality and immediately recognize that shooting live ammunition at unarmed demonstrators that are not endangering anyone is absolutely unacceptable.
AG: In the past, from what I knew, taught my soldiers and what we knew from our testifiers, was that once a Palestinian does not pose an immediate threat, you will not shoot.
So if a Palestinian is holding a Molotov cocktail, and is about to throw it, then official rules are you can shoot at him, right, to stop that immediate threat. Now, after he threw that the Molotov cocktail, you’re not allowed to shoot him because he’s not risking anyone. And from what we hear now soldiers are actually told that they can shoot after the action, so it’s much more of a punitive action.
MH: We saw that video, we saw that video that emerged recently of the Israeli sniper who shot the guy at distance — all of his friends are cheering, using all sorts of epithets.
[Audio from Israeli sniper]
MH: And the Israelis, the Israeli military response was: Well the guy, he may look unarmed, but earlier in the day he was inciting violence — which is a very weird justification for shooting someone, that they were doing something in the past.
AG: When I saw the video of the soldiers on the border and I heard the soldiers cheer, when the Palestinian went down, I could sympathize with them, I could understand what they felt, because I was a soldier there. Because I understand what it means when you train for something for a year-plus, right? So once you succeed, you’re happy.
I think that the cheers got a lot of the headlines, at least inside Israel, I think were not the point. The point was the orders that they got.
MH: You guys, B’Tselem put out a statement recently saying Israeli soldiers should disobey any orders to shoot Palestinian protesters unless until they pose an imminent threat.
Number one, what’s the reaction to that statement been like from inside the IDF as far as you’re aware? And number two, what kind of moral state do an armed forces, an army, have to find itself in, that it’s being told “disobey orders”? You could argue you shouldn’t have to tell people that you need to disobey an order to shoot an unarmed person.
HE: Yeah, I agree, I think we’re in a very bad spot. I think we’ve just stated the obvious, and if you’re in a situation in which stating the obvious takes courage, you’re in a very bad spot. This is not complicated. This should not be difficult. This should be self-evident, and, in fact, it’s not only us saying that, but this is based on one of the most famous precedents in the history of the country, from 1956, from the verdict in the Kafr Qasim massacre, that soldiers are duty-bound to disobey flagrantly illegal commands, and there’s an appreciation in that verdict that circumstances can be complicated.
We’re not talking about these. We’re talking about issues in which it is self-evident that the language of the decision is that there’s a black flag of illegality waving above the command, that any decent human being would be able to identify that.
AG: You know, there is no space for asking big moral questions and if we expect soldiers to have the space, to you know, you know contemplate on these big dilemmas, then we’re delusional.
In order to have soldiers stop being violent to Palestinians, you have to end the occupation, because occupation itself is inherently violent. And in order to fundamentally change that, then you have to change —
MH: So a lot of people listening to you right now, hearing you speak in this way, will wonder: How did you come to that realization? Because you said earlier you were justifying it as a soldier.
What was the moment where you thought, “OK, this is not right. I can’t justify this. This is inexcusable.”
AG: So I think there were a few moments to me that I think that I sort of keep coming back to, but one of the defining moments was a house that I entered in Nablus, it was the house of a physician. It was actually called the house of the physician, we didn’t know who the physician was, we just knew he had the right windows in the right place.
And we get to his house in the middle of the night, you know, park our Jeep not far away and the driver lets us off. We get, run up the stairs and start pounding on the door, and before we break the door in, this guy in his ’80s, I think, or even older, opens the door and physically tries to prevent us from entering his house.
So we do what we’re supposed to do as we enter the house, and we pin him to the wall, we blindfold him and we cuff him. And we throw him and his wife and his daughter into the room.
And this was a moment in my service where the justifications didn’t work as much as they did, and I think my conscience kicked in a way, that I, you know leaving a few shekels or cleaning up after we entered the house didn’t do it for me. And I said: I have to do something with this. And, again, that was much more about my personal feeling about what I was doing.
And I sat down and had the conversation with him, you know, took off his handcuff and his blindfold, put down my gun. And in this house in Nablus, this physician managed to open up for me his reality. Every other night his house is taken over. His fear of going through checkpoints, the fear of his family. The fact that what I thought I was doing in isolating it for myself, this was my actions that I was doing, he managed to connect the puzzle.
And in that house I really managed to humanize all the people I dehumanized, and I remember thinking about this with people who served with me. I could hardly remember faces of Palestinians that I occupied. And this position from Nablus, I’ll never forget.
HE: What people also should realize in this description is first how legal this actually is from Israel’s perspective. I don’t want anyone to think that this just happens, happened because —
MH: Some unruly soldiers got carried away.
HE: That’s not the case, this is fundamental to the systems, or the reality.
According to military law, almost any solider can enter almost any Palestinian home, anywhere, anytime. You do not need probable cause. You do not need a search warrant. This is the way things are. And it happens all the time.
MH: They own the place.
HE: Absolutely. If you’re a Palestinian living under occupation, then you know that any point in time, this can happen. All the time. Your life, even your home is absolutely exposed. And if you’re traveling from one point in the West Bank to another point in the West Bank, you never know how long it’s going to take you.
AG: Israelis do not know what’s happening on the ground. Israelis don’t understand what an annexation of area C means. Israelis don’t understand the situation in Gaza today. Israelis don’t understand what it’s like to live as a Palestinian, and they only remember there are Palestinians when there’s violence.
And I think Gaza is just one of the saddest but best examples. High-ranking Israeli generals are talking about these recurring wars in Gaza as mowing the lawn, going in there every couple of years, going in and mowing the lawn. And this has been sort of step two of how we’ve been occupying Gaza — not only from the surroundings, but we also have these reoccurring operations.
MH: A lot of defenders Israel, Hagai, especially here in the West would argue that there’s this unfair attention put Israel’s human rights record. You say that you want to bring international attention, international pressure to bear on Israel. A lot of the defenders of Israel, internationally, their argument is: Well, hold on, what about Syria, or what about Iran, or what about Saudi Arabia? Look at the region Israel’s in. Israel has a much better record than many of these countries. What do you say to them as someone whose job it is to literally document human rights abuses by Israel and by not by any other country, what do you say to them?
HE: The excuses of, “It’s worse elsewhere, so let’s ignore what’s happening in in my country” — it’s absolutely unacceptable. It’s never been convincing. In fact the situation in Israel and Palestine is unique in the sense that is so thoroughly documented, has been allowed to go on for such a very long time and throughout this period somehow we’ve managed to get away with it in Israel, because we have on the one side of the Green Line military occupation, oppression of millions of people with no political rights for more than half a century, and, at the same time, we’re still considered internationally as a democracy with all of the perks that go with that. That’s the sweet spot. That’s exactly what the Israeli leadership is selling successfully, that we can have it both ways.
MH: And you are still seen as a democracy, as you say. Israel claims to be the only democracy in the Middle East, apologies to Tunisia, Lebanon, Iraq and others, but in most democracies, human rights groups don’t find themselves under assault from the government, targeted by legislation in the legislature. You do in Israel right now. A lot of people are not aware of what’s going on with the Israeli human rights groups, Israeli NGOs. Explain what’s going on and why.
HE: There’s a reality of describing the opposition and specifically human rights organizations as traitors, and then also calling for their criminal investigation. And, you know, it may sound familiar to listeners from various countries around the world, including the U.S. and Hungary and other countries, in which authoritarian governments are on the rise. But, hey, Israel has been there way before. We have some significant head start in that sense.
And the uniqueness of the Israeli condition in this regard is that it is both inspired by the occupation, because if for fifty years we’ve been defining any Palestinian opposition to the occupation as incitement, then why wouldn’t we start defining Israeli opposition to the occupation as incitement, and gradually closing the gap between the two sides of the Green Line, but in the wrong direction.
MH: And Avner, when you hear Avigdor Lieberman, the defense minister, saying you’re a traitor, the prime minister attacking organizations like yours and B’Tselem’s, these are mainstream politicians, not the fringes, how hard does it make your job? How hard is it to do your job when you’re getting that kind of high-level, mainstream criticism and accusations really every day?
AG: You know, I always ask myself and we think, we sort of joke about this amongst, amongst the members of Breaking the Silence, at what point did we become traitors? Right? Was it, you know, the first time we read a left-wing blogger as soldiers? Was it when we read, you know, some book when we were guarding, that this idea popped into our head and we started questioning what we’re doing, were we traitors then as well? When we shared our experiences coming back home, speaking to some of our family members, were we traitors then? Or did we only become traitors once we, you know, took up this cloak of breaking our silence publicly?
I mean, I think that the truth of the matter is that there are soldiers who are probably on the border now who will be part of Breaking the Silence in the future. Are they already traitorous at this point? And I think part of what the right has done is create a toxic environment that I think will backlash in the future, but at this point it’s pretty much destroying what’s left of the liberal values in our country.
HE: That’s, that’s the bit I think really gets to me and breaks my heart, that reality has this quality of catching up with you. So even if one sets aside all the propaganda and the lies, I have to ask my fellow Israelis, you know, believe what you want about Breaking the Silence, B’Tselem, other Israeli human rights organizations and so on. Fine. There are facts. There is a reality. We didn’t invent it. There are 13 million people in that small piece of land. No one is going anywhere. How is the future going to look like if things are not changed dramatically so that they are based on justice and rights?
And if that does not happen — that’s the question you’re never going to get a fair answer to — in what future will the next generation live?
MH: And Avner, your organization is literally called Breaking the Silence, the silence about the occupation. What happens though, and I’m sorry to be a downer on this conversation, when you have an Israeli government that is benefiting from legislation passed in Israeli parliament which I believe could even prevent you from being allowed to speak in schools or colleges? You wouldn’t be allowed, you and Hagai, to go into a school or college and tell them what you know about the occupation. Surely that will cripple your effort.
AG: It’s true that there are legislations to attempt to ban us from schools in different levels, and it will be interesting for them to really try to pin it on us, because they’re pretty vague. It’s not the anti-B’Tselem or anti-Breaking the Silence, even though rhetorically that’s what they’re saying. It will be difficult for them to defend it in courts.
But more interestingly is even though this has been in discussion and there is pushback on schools that invite us. We’re still invited. We had this pretty amazing experience a few months ago where high school students invited us and their principals were actually scared from the pushback. And they decided to cancel.
But the students themselves said, “You know what? We’re going to meet them in our own time, in our own home” — 17-, 18-year-olds, like how do you motivate 17-, 18-year-olds in this time and age to do anything?
And they, on their own time, out of school, said, “We’ll invite you.”
So they’re closing a door, we’re going in through the window. And that will continue. In the same way that soldiers will continue coming with all this pressure, and as long as there will be an occupation that will try to do that, there will be people who want to hear.
MH: One last question to both of you: Israelis who don’t like what you do, who don’t want to hear your message, they will say, “Listen to them, going to the United States, going on podcasts, criticizing our military, criticizing our government, being so negative, they’re haters of Israel, they’re not patriots.” What you say to them?
HE: What everyone at B’Tselem is doing, both Palestinians and Israelis, is done out of the love and realization that all 13 million people between the river and the sea are created in the image of God, exactly as the name of the organization is, and out of love to all of these people, we are never going to stop doing what we’re doing until the occupation ends.
AG: I mean, I think for us the same reason that we initially joined the Army to protect our country, I think today when we’re looking at what we’re doing as, you know, we’re actually doing exactly that. But, you know, for a question, you know, we’re sitting here in D.C.
As an Israeli soldier, I walked around the streets of Nablus and Jenin with an M-16 that said on it “Colt. Property of the U.S.A. government”. So it’s not about getting the international community involved. The international community is involved. Right? The U.S., the E.U. is deeply involved. The question is what do they do with that involvement?
And when I’m thinking about the American ambassador to Israel, you know, David Friedman, who’s been a long-time settler supporter, who in Bethel, in the settlement in the West Bank, there’s actually a building bearing his name on private Palestinian land, nonetheless.
I’m thinking about the audacity, what we call the chutzpah, of the Israeli right, and the international right supporting that cause, and what we need in our camp are people that know right from wrong and saying our way to support Israel is by fighting the occupation.
MH: Let me just say this to both of you. as a journalist who’s been following this issue and writing about this conflict for many years now, the work that both of your organizations do is invaluable to a lot of us around the world. So keep doing what you do. It’s also a reminder, that even in the darkest of periods, the darkest of places, people like yourselves are willing to speak out and literally break the silence. Avner Gvaryahu, Hagai El-Ad, thank you both for joining me on Deconstructed.
Avner Gvaryahu: Thank you very much.
MH: That was Hagai El-Ad from B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights, and Avner Gvaryahu from Breaking the Silence. And that’s our show!
Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept and is distributed by Panoply.
Our producer is Zach Young. Dina Sayedahmed is our production assistant. Leital Molad is our executive producer. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor-in-chief.
I’m Mehdi Hasan. You can follow me on Twitter @mehdirhasan. If you haven’t already, please do subscribe to the show so you can hear it every Friday. Go to theintercept.com/deconstructed to subscribe from your podcast platform of choice.
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Thanks so much, see you next week.